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March 14, 2014

Sion Sono Strikes Twice

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Guilty of Romance / Koi no tsumi
Sion Sono - 2011

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Sion Sono - 2011
both Olive Films

File this under "Better late than never", as two films by Sion Sono released in 2011 get theatrical releases in the U.S. today. I don't know what opportunities for seeing these films outside of New York City will be, but if there is no other option, both films are worth seeking when available on home video.

I had already seen Himizu last year. The one that will probably get more attention is Guilty of Romance. This is the "International version", and for those like myself, who were wondering what's missing, this article offers some clarification, and also some reassurance that this may be the better version of the film.

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The story is inspired by a true event, the murder of a prostitute in the Shibuya section of Tokyo in 1997. The woman was also revealed to be a high level researcher for a top company. Perhaps it might be part of a cultural zeitgeist particular to Japan, but I also feel a connection to a series of novels by a group of female novelists, Natsuo Kirino being the one I have read. The murder mystery setup of Guilty of Romance is an effective hook, although it recedes in importance while following the descent of Izumi into her own personal hell.

Sono can't be accused of subtlety. When Izumi, bored of being the dutiful wife of a famous writer, decides to get a job, she is offering free samples of sausages in a grocery story. There's no mistaking any symbolism as the sausages get bigger later in the film. Likewise, as Izumi evolves from demure housewife to uninhibited prostitute, the necklines in her dress get lower while the hemlines get shorter. Much of the credit should go to Sono regular Megumi Kagurazaka as the woman who believes she is in control of her sexuality, only to find that her sense of liberation reveals some unexpected traps.

A case might be made that Sono is being self-critical. Izumi's husband is seen reading from his erotically charged novels. Izumi's "guide" to making the most of her sexuality is Mitsuko, a professor of literature who moonlights as a prostitute. Mitsuko also served as a nude model for her artist father. There is also the bowler hatted pimp, with a penchant for tossing pink paintballs, turning those splattered into human canvases of abstract art.

Some of the impact of Himizu may be diminished with a U.S. release almost three years to the date of the Fukushima earthquake. There could well be a lack of comprehension on the part of some audience members unaware of how massive the destruction was in this part of Japan. While Sono is very much on the side of fourteen year old Sumida, who's only goal is to get by in life with as little friction as possible, there is no sympathy for some of the adults, including a well-meaning teacher who spouts of homilies, and recklessly claims that "no one has suffered atrocities like the Japanese."

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Sumida struggles to deal with the world on his own terms, isolating himself emotionally even from those who sincerely have his best interests in mind. A himizu is a kind of mole, which is how Sumida would prefer to live, hidden in the darkness. The sometimes rough relationship with the insistently ingratiating Keiko is certainly not typical of how most films portray teen romance, although Keiko's cheerfulness contrasts dramatically with the hell of her own family life. Nothing comes easy for this pair. I cannot imagine anyone seeing HImizu not moved by the final scene with Sumida running to face the world head on.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 14, 2014 07:35 AM